Social Marketing Product Placement

A couple of weeks ago, some of my friends and colleagues from the Entertainment Resource Professionals Association (ERPA), of which I am a member, were interviewed by a reporter at the LA Times.  The article just came out, and is an excellent introduction to how health and social advocates are facilitating their issues’ portrayals in the plotlines of daytime and primetime television shows.

Why is this tactic in the social marketing toolbox important?

The CDC analyzed U.S. health survey data in 1999. Researchers concluded that of the 38 million Americans who regularly watch daytime soap operas, almost half said they learned something about diseases and how to prevent them. Even better, about a third of viewers said they took some action based on what they saw on a soap opera, including 7% who visited a doctor and 6% who did something to prevent a health problem.

A year later, the CDC looked at prime-time television. It found that of Americans who tuned in twice a week or more, 52% said they trusted the health information they see to be accurate, and 26% said that prime-time TV was among their top three sources for health information.

Getting your issue on TV is not as simple as sending a fact sheet to the producer of a show.  People who are working in this field have developed relationships over time with writers, researchers, producers and others in the entertainment industry.  They are trusted not to push an agenda or a specific plotline, but to provide accurate facts and ideas that writers can then weave into their storytelling.

Now there is a growing industry in Hollywood made up of advocates who are neither entertainers nor insiders, but who want their disease or issue to get dramatic play before a mass audience. Similar to product placement, it’s a kind of ideas placement. A group called the Entertainment Professionals Resource Assn. pulls dozens of these groups together, including the American Cancer Society, Down Syndrome in Arts and Media, the American Heart Assn. and the Mental Health Media Partnership.

“We’re trying to shift the norm,” says Deborah Glik, director of the UCLA Health and Media Research Group, who is affiliated with the entertainment group. “When you’re going to portray a health issue anyway, and you’re working with a platform that reaches millions of people, you should do it accurately.”

Members make themselves available with scientific facts and a bank of real citizens willing to tell their stories. They carefully push their causes, knowing they walk a delicate line between sparking creativity and triggering annoyance.

David Sampson, director of media relations at the American Cancer Society, has learned that it’s better if his organization stays away from pitching specific plots. Policy wonks, it turns out, aren’t so good at recognizing the germ of a compelling story line. “Writers come to us,” he says, “and almost invariably, they’ll pick up on some bit of information that we had no intention of relaying.”

But the society doesn’t hesitate to advise, when asked. When Alexis on the soap opera “General Hospital” was diagnosed with lung cancer despite being a nonsmoker, Sampson heard that writers wanted to attribute her disease to asbestos exposure. “About 4,000 non-smokers a year come down with lung cancer,” he says. “But short of working in a mine, you only get lung cancer from asbestos exposure if you’re also a smoker.” Exposure to second-hand smoke, the society suggested, was a far better explanation.

The idea is to present entertainment insiders with powerful real stories, inundate them with facts, and then sit back and hope the creative juices take over. “I believe the writer is king or queen,” says Lisa Allen, director of the Media Project, which provides entertainment industry professionals with information on reproductive issues. “We don’t preach, we don’t proselytize.”

So the next time you see Jack Bauer get into his Ford Expedition on 24, you’ll probably also see him put on his seatbelt, thanks to the work of health advocates and their receptive Hollywood audience.

If you’re interested in more on this, here are other posts I’ve written on this subject:

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  1. Fascinating stuff. I wonder how competitive or political things are between the various disease advocates. Is there good fellowship? Or a lot of pushing and shoving? Also, do the diseases with “chic” and “trendy” people pushing them drown out the others from time to time?

  2. I am amazed at how noncompetitive and supportive the ERPA members are. The group started as an informal group of colleagues doing similar work who decided to network with and learn from each other. By sharing our resources and presenting ourselves as a group to the industry, we all become more effective in promoting the specific issues we work on because the writers know where to go to find out who is working on what topic. Some of the organizations try to defend their turf from time to time, but for the most part it’s very collegial, and we revel in each other’s successes. I think that most of us see that it’s not a zero-sum game, and we all have similar goals for getting good health information out there to the viewing public, each playing to our content strengths.


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